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<b>Astral Arcs</b><br>Star trails over the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, one of Mauna Kea's thirteen observatories. <br><i>Photo by Richard J. Wainscoat / Photo Resource Hawaii</i>
Vol. 13, no. 3
June/July 2010


The Ark of Olelo Hawaii 
Story by Roland Gilmore
Photos by Ann Cecil


Nearly every week
for the last six or so years, a small group has gathered for adult Sunday school just prior to morning services at Honolulu’s historic Kaumakapili church. Retired
Kahu (pastor) David K. Kaupu leads the group, mostly elders, through the gospels in a loose mix of Hawaiian and English, but the text they study, Baibala Hemolele (Holy Bible), is purely Hawaiian. The class helps churchgoers connect more deeply with the day’s services, which are also conducted in a mix of Hawaiian and English—just as they are at most of the churches that make up the Association of Hawaiian Evangelical Churches and the State Council of Hawaiian Congregational Churches. But the class also serves a more practical purpose: to teach the language.


Kahu Kaupu knows well the dual value of this study. He was born one of sixteen children on Moloka‘i; his father was a public school teacher. At home his parents spoke to each other and his elder siblings in Hawaiian, but by the time David himself entered the public school system in the 1930s, English had been the mandated language of instruction in public schools for nearly four decades. The Republic of Hawai‘i, which governed the Islands for four years in the wake of the Hawaiian Kingdom’s overthrow, passed a law in 1896 requiring that public and private schools use English “as the medium and basis for instruction” in order to be recognized by the government. After attending Kamehameha Schools and then seminary on the Mainland, he took up his first church posting in the Big Island’s rural Puna district, where the kupuna (elders) still mainly spoke Hawaiian. And so he began studying a Hawaiian-English version of the New Testament. “I came back into understanding and using the Hawaiian language through reading the Bible,” he says. “And yes, the Bible is still used by some people, certainly by me, as a language textbook.”

Hawaiian-language Bibles occupy a significant place in the history of Hawaiian writing. When in 1820 a group of American Congregationalist missionaries and Native Hawaiian scholars first set about translating the Palapala Hemolele (Holy Scriptures), there was not yet an established form of written Hawaiian. By the time their work was completed in 1839, Hawai‘i was in the early stages of producing one of world’s largest bodies of indigenous-language writing, including everything from religious texts to government documents, newspapers and works of fiction. The Bible translation work was a key component in standardizing the language in writing.

Palapala Hemolele
and its 1868 revision, Baibala Hemolele, also became vessels of preservation. For the scholar they bridge the language of pre-contact Hawai‘i and the language as it is spoken today, capturing (to the extent possible at the time) the Hawaiian of the nineteenth century. In some cases the texts preserve words that are no longer in use and which do not appear in any of the several Hawaiian-English dictionaries that have been published over the last 170 years. (One of the first, A Vocabulary of Words in the Hawaiian Language, was produced by the Rev. Lorrin Andrews in 1836, using the press at Maui’s Lahainaluna High School.) In other cases they contain words created by the translators themselves.


But the Hawaiian Bibles also helped to preserve the language during the long period beginning in the late 1800s and lasting well into the twentieth century, when Hawaiian was effectively banished from official use. While English became the language of government and instruction in public schools, Hawaiian was (and still is) regularly used in many churches. Because of the heavy conversion rate among Hawaiians, the Baibala was also found in many homes.